There is no such thing as THE will of the people

There is no such thing as the will of the people, a singular will or intention that can be unambiguously enacted. This I think so obvious that I almost feel embarrassed making the point. But politically, it’s important. In the midst of the protracted political debate about how to enact the result of the EU referendum there have been numerous calls from ardent leavers for politicians to ‘follow the will of the people’, and obvious signs of frustration that such a ‘simple’ request is not being carried out.

But such a request is far from simple, and for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, it is impossible for any collective to have a will, a single unified will capable of being enacted. Now the notion of ‘will’ is, itself, far from straight forward, but if we take it simply as that aspect of our mental faculty responsible for making decisions and initiating action, I fail to see how any individual ‘will’ can be identical with any other. The complexity of our individual thought processes, the uniqueness of the circumstances that provide our motivations to act and our visions of future states, makes this impossible. The most that can be achieved is a vaguely similar vision of a future state that a large number of people can agree they want. However, in the same way that a large number of people can claim to have witnessed the same event but when questioned on the details offer slightly different versions, those who sign up to any shared vision, when questioned, will envisage things slightly differently.

Second, even if we accept the possibility of a large group of people holding a vaguely similar vision of a future state, it does not follow that that state can be brought about. When we hold a vision of an imagined future we tend to avoid the fine details. It’s only when we try to bring that future into being that we discover the complexity of what is involved. Unless we are an engineer working on a particular design project we do not stop to consider the details of our vision – how it will work when imbedded in the real world and how we can actually get from here to there. In short, just holding such a vision doesn’t mean that it can be achieved. In a former life I was a careers adviser, and used to advise students to make ‘well informed and realistic decisions’. It is quite conceivable that the decision to leave the EU was neither well informed nor realistic. I suspect that most voters at the referendum did not undertake the amount of research into their potentially life changing decision as I advised those students to undertake into theirs.

Finally, the implication behind this call for our MPs to follow the will of the people is that they should forget their own opinions and judgements and instead simply enact the result of the referendum. Forgetting for a moment the two minor points outlined above, what would be the result if our MPs did so act? They would all support the draft legislation laid before parliament – giving this legislation 100% support, even though it only received 52% support in the referendum. Would they question it? Scrutinise it? Challenge it? If they are going to support whatever is presented to them, why should any of the proposed arrangements be amended or reviewed? But how can we assume that what is presented first time round is substantially the best version? How can an MP scrutinise without the ability to vote against? To repeat the points made above, it is impossible for 650 MPs to view any matter in exactly the same way, and if they have their freedom to reject any proposed action taken away from them we effectively become a totalitarian state!

Stoicism and the World Cup

I choose my words carefully because commenting on football is far more dangerous than commenting on politics; there are far more experts, far more offences to be taken, and you are far more likely to be considered a little odd for not following the herd. However, what I have always considered a little strange is the emotional investment people make in something that is so outside of their control; the euphoria they feel when their team is successful and the complete deflation they feel when they lose. If they had some input into this success or failure, if they had some degree of responsibility for it, I could understand their reaction. But on the whole, I just don’t get it. And this response is magnified many times when it comes to an event like the World Cup, and the public mood becomes palpable.

Even though I do not regard myself as a Stoic, a certain aspect of Stoicism, a school of philosophy that started in ancient Greece and became dominant in ancient Rome, I think worthy of consideration. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic and freed slave who ran a thriving school in Nicopolis in the early second century CE, urged his students to ask, of their reaction to events in the world: “’Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”

Such a sentiment led to their guidance to seek the strength to change the things in life we can change, the resilience to accept with equanimity those things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference, a sentiment that later got written into a Christian prayer. Leaving aside the Stoic belief in the power of fate in a highly deterministic universe (not a minor request, I agree, but bear with me), the basic point is: There are many things over which we have absolutely no control, like the inevitability of death, the inevitability of bad weather, and that only one team can win a competition. There are other things that we can have some control over, like our health, our contribution to global warming, and how well we play as part of a team. We should be very concerned about the latter, and be prepared to put a great deal of effort into doing something about the issues. But becoming concerned about the former is just a waste of time that makes us feel bad unnecessarily, and drains the energy we have available to channel into the latter.

The real skill, however, is developing the wisdom to differentiate between the two. I totally accept that the crowd in stadium can lift and encourage their team and have some effect on the outcome of the game, and that therefore the emotional investment made by the crowd through their support will result in some degree of elation or deflation at the result. But the extent to which some supporters allow their support to structure and provide meaning to practically their entire life, and the extent to which passive (non-attending) supporters allow the result of games to so deeply affect their mood, seems to me to be a total waste of emotional energy. Instead, why not become angry at some of the social inequalities that exist, and then become active in doing something about them? Why not emotionally invest in something that can be changed? In something you can have some control over? That is wisdom. And the result of such an investment is well worth being concerned about.